Video report by ITV News Security Editor Rohit Kachroo
The government will “urgently investigate” the possibility of repatriating four British children from a Syrian refugee camp — as long as their mother agrees that she cannot return with them.
The proposal, made to a London woman who joined so-called Islamic State with her husband in 2014, is likely to be a precursor to the return of dozens of other children stranded in refugee camps following the territorial defeat of the terror group.
Mehak Aslam, from east London, has been in a Syrian refugee camp with her four children for almost a year while her husband Shahan Choudhury, a former IS gravedigger, is held at a prison nearby. Both have been stripped of their British citizenship.
In an exclusive interview with ITV News, Mehak's father Mohammed urged his daughter to sign papers which would allow her children to return to the UK, while Shuhan Choudhury blames prison for radicalising his brother.
Last June, Shahan Choudhury revealed he had buried fighters during the final battle for Baghouz, shortly before the collapse of the IS caliphate.
The government's apparent change in position came after the family approached the Foreign Office for assistance after they saw an ITV News interview with Shahan last June.
Ministers have been under pressure to find a way to solve the brewing humanitarian crisis surrounding an estimated sixty British children born to parents who joined IS and are now trapped in Syrian camps.
Some Whitehall officials have long considered Britain’s inaction over the issue to be unsustainable and have been considering the legal and moral arguments for several different approaches.
But the UK government is likely to be accused of splitting up families by refusing to allow the children’s mothers or fathers to return alongside them.
For British authorities, one appeal of this approach - likely to be offered to other mothers in refugee camps - is that it avoids having to repatriate adults who are considered to pose a threat to the UK’s national security and who might be difficult to prosecute in the UK.
“That’s a hard reality but at least they’ll be safe here - at least they’ll be safe and secure” said Mohamed Aslam, the children’s maternal grandfather, in an interview with ITV News.
He said he hoped his daughter would eventually be able to return to the UK “for the sake of the children” but adds his four grandchildren are now his priority.
He says that although he would be willing to care for the youngsters himself, “every child needs their parents no matter how much love and affection we can offer.”
The repatriation of the children would only take place with the authorisation of their mother.
Mr Aslam’s fears for the welfare of his four grandchildren are heightened because a fifth child - his first grandchild - was killed in an explosion in Syria.
“She passed away - I can never forgive them (her parents) for that. I find it very hard to accept what they’ve done. They wanted to take this step for themselves - that’s fine, thats their problem. Why involve the kids in this?”
“We’ve lost one, I hope we don’t lose any more. And for that I’m angry - I’m angry with my daughter and son-in-law.”
Choudhary’s family revealed that he became radicalised after falling under the influence of followers of Anjem Choudary while he was in prison. He spent eighteen months in Belmarsh on remand but was acquitted. He began attending the hate preacher’s sermons shortly after leaving prison.
Shuhan Choudhury tells ITV News that prison was responsible for his brother's radicalisation
“He would go to take lessons and stuff like that” Shahan Choudhary’s brother, Shuhan, told ITV News. “I saw him on TV as well. I forgot what it was about but there was a protest going on. He was there, Anjem Choudary was there.”
“After I saw that I approached him - I had a word with him. I tried to tell him, basically, Anjem Choudary is not the right person you should be going to to learn Islam off because the way this guy talks, he’s got a lot of venom.”
Mehak Aslam also fell under the same spell, according to her father. Shortly before she married, Anjem Choudary called him to insist he should attend their wedding, even though he disapproved. Until then Mr Aslam had been unaware that his daughter had been an associate of the infamous extremist.
“He was saying that I should come and give my daughter away because she wants to get married and I said to him… ‘I don’t agree to all this so I suggest you put her on the right path and send her home’. He turned around and said ‘well, if you don’t agree she can always arrange someone else to give her away’."
A Foreign Office spokesperson declined to comment on the case of the four children but added: “Every request for consular assistance is considered on a case by case basis. Decisions take into account all relevant considerations including nationality, national security and feasibility.”